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When flames engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral last April, people around the world mourned the destruction of France’s national symbol. The greater tragedy, wrote Pastor René Breuel for The Washington Post, is that a church was on fire. “More than a national icon or a touristic spot, cathedrals such as Notre Dame reveal their soul when they house singing and baptisms, confession and pardon, preaching and prayer,” he said. In America, the most iconic landmark is the Statue of Liberty, not a church. But church buildings have long served as sacred spaces in the country. And America is losing them, one by one.
Real estate developers are snatching up the properties and converting them into luxury condos. The developers often incorporate the church’s features, like the stained glass windows or the bell tower, into the hip new home designs rather than demolishing the structure in favor of cookie-cutter housing. But while the exterior may look the same, the interior differs in form and purpose. Buildings once intended for religious and social benefits (whether a wedding, the Lord’s Supper, or a 12-step meeting) are now limited to private use. It’s happening in cities such as Boston, Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco, as well as in smaller towns.
The word church in the Bible refers to a body of believers, not a building, so the church-to-condo movement raises the question: Does it matter when a neighborhood loses the physical space where worshippers gather? Pastor John Slye of Grace Community Church in Arlington, Va., thinks it does: “These are sacred spaces that were prayed over, labored over, and dedicated to the work of Christ in that particular community.”
Although each property has its unique story, churches sometimes decide to sell because of the pressure from the denomination’s governing body that wants the financial benefit. Matthew 21 tells the story of how Jesus cleansed the Temple area in Jerusalem because merchants turned a house of prayer into a robbers’ den (making money the priority). In some parts of the country, megachurches are flourishing, and streaming technology allows people to watch services without even getting out of bed.
Attendance at mainline denominations is on the decline: The 2018 General Social Survey says the trend has been going on for 20 years. A 2015 study by LifeWay Research estimated that 3,700 Protestant churches closed in 2014. But that study also found that new church plants, often Biblically oriented, outpaced the closures: 4,000 opened their doors that same year. New church plants often forgo owning a building and meet in places like schools, movie theaters, and coffee shops.
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The Christian fraternity house at the University of Michigan looks like a stone castle with two towers and an arched entryway. During the last week of June, 21 high-school students lived here along with six staff members from Knox Presbyterian Church. Their goal: to advance Christ’s kingdom in their hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich.
American youth ministries often follow an entertainment-driven model. Youth ministry as a distinct arm of the church did not emerge until the 1970s, and when it did, churches copied the paradigm of Young Life and Youth for Christ. The goal of these ministries was to reach youth by making church relevant and fun, whether it be with youth pastors who swallow live goldfish or bands with lights and smoke.
The bleak statistics of American youth leaving the church raise questions about the merits of this model. While statistics vary based on studies, LifeWay Research pegs 70 percent of American youth as leaving the church after high school. Even though it found that about 35 percent of those eventually return, it also found that by age 30, 1 in 4 had permanently left the church.
Knox Presbyterian’s youth ministry once followed this mainstream model and had an annual budget of $100,000 that created a programming machine. Several years ago, the senior pastor asked Josh Boehr, the youth pastor, “What would you do if we took away your entire youth ministry budget?” Boehr’s response was, “That would excite me because youth ministry wouldn’t be about programs. It would be about relationships and Christ.” Now Boehr’s annual budget is $20,000, and he’s eliminated almost every single event and mission trip that the ministry once scheduled.
Knox’s Ann Arbor mission trip keeps costs low by staying local while training students to pursue Christ in their own city. “We didn’t have a lot to show for it by the end of the week,” said Boehr. “We couldn’t come back to the congregation and say that we dug six wells or distributed shoes for 10,000 people.” Instead, these students grappled with their understanding of the gospel as they shared it with their neighbors. They visited a Sikh temple and a mosque. They rode on public transportation instead of church buses. They initiated conversations about Christ with people on the streets.
In the evenings, they worshipped and read through passage after passage where Christ talks about His kingdom. Boehr does not want his students to know a Jesus who therapeutically answers prayers and gives peace on a needed basis. Instead, he desires to see Jesus reigning as King in students’ lives.
Toward the end of the week, Boehr and two students, Lydia and Anna, visited a plaza in downtown Ann Arbor frequented by the city’s homeless. They sat by a woman named Melissa whose clothes were tattered and eyes were bruised—effects, she said, from someone breaking into her hotel room and beating her. Melissa’s vision had been compromised from the fight, and they offered to take her to the hospital. She resisted that offer, and so instead, they bought her a glass of water. She started crying, thanking them over and over for the water.
Then Melissa suddenly became aggressive. She moved closer to their faces, yelling that they didn’t understand what it’s like to have six abusive stepdads, to be left in a dumpster, and to be homeless and alone. A security guard in the plaza noticed and started moving toward them. Her aggressive demeanor stopped, and she started to cry again.
Anna, a high-school junior in a Christian family, and Melissa, a bruised and beaten woman on the streets, embraced, and Anna also cried. The girls prayed for Melissa, asking for healing for both eyes and soul.
Anna had struggled all week with the fact that this mission trip had little to show for their efforts and nothing to make the students feel good about themselves. But now she understood that following Jesus that day meant pushing past discomfort with a hug and a glass of water.
Parents still complain to Boehr about the changes he’s made at Knox. The day I interviewed him, a parent asked Boehr why he had to take the fun out of church. His ministry has shrunk in size because many students don’t want to go into uncomfortable situations for the sake of advancing God’s kingdom. But his vision for ministry is not to make students happy. It’s to bring them under submission to King Jesus.
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On March 18, a tech employee who goes by the alias Tyler started an Instagram account with the username @PreachersNSneakers and posted a photo of an American pastor in tennis shoes. Sounds harmless, but these weren’t scuffed-up lawn mowing shoes, they were Yeezys, and Tyler happened to be a sneakerhead.
For the uninitiated, Yeezys are a line of footwear that rapper Kanye West designed with Nike and then Adidas. The shoes often resell online for thousands of dollars. A sneakerhead, according to Urban Dictionary, is “a person who collects limited, rare … or exclusive kicks” or is knowledgeable about sneakers. Tyler posted another photo. And another.
Pastor Chad Veach of Zoe Church in $1,045 Saint Laurent Jodhpur boots.
Pastor John Gray of Relentless Church in a pair of red Air Yeezy 2s that resell for over $5,000.
Pastor Rich Wilkerson Jr. of Vous Church in FoG Jungles with a Neiman Marcus price tag of $995 (FoG stands for Fear of God).
Eight weeks later, @Preachers NSneakers had fewer than 40 pictures, but had gained over 160,000 followers. The site set off alarm bells about consumerism, and followers were going nuts with comments: a wide mix of condemnation, chiding, and claims that it’s a sin to judge others because only God knows the heart.
Some of the photos show pastors in expensive clothes or accessories instead of shoes, like the one of televangelist Jesse DuPlantis in a $1,300 Louis Vuitton bomber jacket.
It raises an important question: Christians aren’t called to be paupers, but the Bible clearly commands against loving money. How should Christians hold that tension?
WORLD asked 15 pastors featured on the site to respond to that question and also share the circumstances of their shoes. Were they a gift? Did they buy the sneakers before they were vintage?